Monday, March 10, 2008

Sudden Wealth of Great Books

Sometimes we avid readers go through a depressing dry spell where nothing we pick up grabs our full attention. Then, other times, WOW! I have found a great new writer to recommend for literary mystery. He writes under the innocuous sounding name of Benjamin Black but, in reality, he is Booker prize winner John Banville, whose renowned novel The Sea was one of our book discussion books here at the library last year.
Writing under the pseudonym, Black has completed two novels featuring a wonderfully crusty, complicated Dublin pathologist named Quirke whose burning desire for justice is matched only by his smoldering hatred of the hyprocrisy of the one, true Irish religion, Catholicism. In the first book, Christine Falls, Quirke is investigating the death in childbirth, and the disappearance of the newborn, of a young woman who once worked as a maid in the house of his half-brother and nemesis, Mal.
Multiple plot lines take the reader back and forth across the pond from Ireland to Boston and I must say, I can't remember when I last read a book with so many thoroughly despicable characters in one place. They're gloriously awful! I listened to this book in my car, thoroughly enjoying the reading by actor Timothy Dalton, who embued Quirke with a very authentic world-weary, cynical persona just as the author surely must have intended.
I can't wait for the highly praised second novel in this series, titled The Silver Swan, to make it to the shelves.

Don and I are each working on projects at home that involve painting. It's such a companionable thing to do together especially when we each have our mp3's plugged in, Don to perfect his Spanish and me to keep up with all the reading I have to do. This undertaking in my dining room (which looks fab if I do say so myself) has enabled me to burn though A Free Life by Ha Jin.
This is one of those books that I would have felt obligated to read to enrich my life but may not have enjoyed quite so much if I had to tackle it at the end of a long work day. Listening frees me up to accomplish other things and expand my mind at the same time. Win-win!
This novel follows the lives of Nan Wu, PingPing and their son TaoTao, Chinese immigrants who came to the northeast United States after the debacle of Tiananmen Square. Like so many immigrants to America, Nan Wu and his wife, college-educated scholars in their own country, work hard in menial jobs to forge a free life for their beloved son.
Nan had aspired to be a poet but lacking confidence in his English language skills, he slowly develops a sense of peace in the every day repetitive work of preparing and cooking food for the restaurant that he and PingPing bought in an Atlanta suburb. An unexpected visit from a colleague from Nan's writing days in Boston reacquaints Nan with the local literati at Emory and the Chinese dissidents from whom he's tried to distance himself.
Author, Ha Jin, gives readers tremendous insight into the plight of our immigrants, the pressures they face to leave their native land behind emotionally as well as physically, while adapting to a new and very different culture. Some succeed beyond their wildest dreams, others fail for so many reasons. The novelist challenges us to think about how well we would do as ex-pats in another country, not an easy, romantic switch like Italy or France, but a truly different land. I surmise we wouldn't fare very well.

Coming up: fabulous review of Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, and big hopes for Charles Baxter's Soul Thief, not to mention Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife. I'm reading as fast as I can!

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